Considering the ‘horse’

I realise I am a week and a day late with this post! Now that I am starting to engage with the PhD research itself I may need to scale these posts back to a fortnightly schedule, so I can keep on top of things!

In this week’s post I want to examine the differing ways the word ‘horse’ is used and understood, particularly in the context of my research. It is worth pausing to think through the complex conceptual constructs that the word ‘horse’ conjures in this country. The field of animal studies has been integral to framing my thoughts on this topic, and I believe that considering the differing ways that the term can be understood is essential to understanding the significance of the horse more broadly.

The term ‘horse’ can be understood in several distinct ways; there is the ubiquitous and non-specific horse of the cultural imagination – a herd of brumbies galloping across the Snowy Mountains high country, for example. This is perhaps the closest understanding of the word where the horse’s value is intrinsic, and its alterity a given. Then, there are the individuated horses. These can be either nationally famous (usually racehorses), such as Phar Lap or Black Caviar, or more personally significant – my pony Peppin, for example. These individuals can also be fictional, such as Tharwa, the eponymous ‘Silver Brumby’ made famous by Elynne Mitchell, whose stories have permeated Australian popular culture, or the unnamed ‘small and weedy beast’ ridden in A.B. Paterson’s poem ‘The Man from Snowy River’.

These differing understandings of the same term – horse – are not completely distinct from each other, either. First, because it is doubtful that we personally know and understand the horse Phar Lap any more than readers know the fictional brumby Tharwa; both are constructs of their human interpreters, whether curator, author, or researcher. Second, the affective power of one ‘type’ of horse inevitably influences public regard for the other. For example, the fictional nineteenth-century herd of brumbies captured by the Man who hailed from Snowy River is inevitably conjured in contemporary discussions of brumby management and control in the High Country.

All of these individuated horses are also what I would term Relational Horses, whose existence (and worth) is considered only in relation to a single, or multiple, humans, rather than any intrinsic value they themselves might have. Think about it – Phar Lap, Black Caviar, the ‘small and weedy beast’ ridden by Banjo Paterson’s ‘Man’ – even Tharwa, whose narrative is driven by his antagonistic relationship with another unnamed Man. Arguably the most significant of these Relational Horses  in the Australian cultural imagination is the horse ridden by the stockman.

The figure of the stockman holds particular significance in the national imagination. I have discussed the work of Nanette Mantle elsewhere on the blog, but it is worth reiterating here. In her text Horse & Rider in Australian Legend, Mantle argues that the image of the stockman is tied to imported European tropes,[1] and is a bricolage of the fox-hunting gentleman of England, the chivalrous cavalry-man of the army, and the knight errant. [2] Mantle contends that representations of the stockman, frequently depicted on horseback and with whip raised, evokes imagery of St George slaying the dragon. [3]

This conjunction of horse and rider is what historian David Gary Shaw refers to as a ‘unity’.[4] As Shaw points out, ‘[a] man and horse can interact in many ways, but the horse-and-rider act as one.’[5] In the mytho-historicised figure of the stockman,[6] the horse is as integral to the equation as the rider. As Mantle has argued, in Australia the concept of the horse is not far removed from the concept of rider.[7] The figure of the stockman will be treated as a unity within my research, where the significance of the horse merges with that of the rider, to create a unique (or united) figure – the Stockman.

I am tempted to conclude from all this that the first type of ‘horse’ we looked at, the ubiquitous horse, whose alterity is unknowable and whose value is intrinsic, is actually of no significance to the national imagination at all, and that we only value those horses that we see in relation to ourselves. But I’m willing to be swayed on this, and would welcome comments if readers feel otherwise.


[1] Nanette Mantle, Horse & Rider in Australian Legend (Carlton: The Miegunyah Press, 2004), 2.

[2] Mantle, Horse & Rider, 59-60.

[3] Mantle, Horse & Rider, 59-60.

[4] David Gary Shaw, “The Torturer’s Horse: Agency and Animals in History,” History and Theory, Theme Issue 52 (2013): 161.

[5] Shaw, “The Torturer’s Horse,” 162.

[6] Mantle, Horse & Rider, 2.

[7] Mantle, Horse & Rider.


One thought on “Considering the ‘horse’

  1. Pingback: Review: “Horses in Australia”, by Nicholas Brasch | horsesfordiscourses

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